Lately, I’ve noticed the growing popularity of skulls and sugar skulls in Western culture – you can find them in all shapes and sizes plastered all over t-shirts, as ornaments in jewelry, illustrated in graffiti or tattooed on someone’s arm. Yes, skulls are definitely gaining mainstream popularity but have you ever though about the origins of sugar skulls or what exactly do they represent? I’m thinking not, as I highly doubt that half the people who have them printed on a piece of clothing have ever bothered to do some simple research into this fascinating subject.
Within the Western culture, skulls usually depict the dark, macabre and gruesome death. However sugar skulls’ origin (or calaveras de azucar) springs from Mexico. Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday, celebrated on the 1st and 2nd November in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Hollow’s Day. The festivities start at midnight on the 31st October. Sugar skulls are often used to decorate the gravestones of the deceased. The reason they are called “sugar skulls” is because the authentic sugar skulls were made out of clay molded sugar, decorated with feathers, colored beads, foils and icing. These sugar skulls are very colorful and whimsical, not scary at all. The name of the deceased relative could be written on the skull’s forehead and then put on the altar, accompanied by marigolds (the marigold is perceived as the flower of the dead), candles and maybe even the deceased’s favorite food and beverage in order to encourage and guide him back to earth.
Smaller skulls are placed on the offrenda (altar) on November 1st, representing the children who have passed away. Larger, more detailed ones would then replace them on the 2nd November, which represent the adults. The departed are believed to return home to enjoy the offerings on the altar.
The idea of this tradition is that the Mexican families choose to celebrate the lives of their dearly departed friends and relatives as an opposite to most cultures that tend to mourn the dead. The roots of Dia de los Muertos could be traced back to the Aztecs and their festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world with small differences – In Brasil, it’s called Dia de Finadosand and it is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. There are similar observances found throughout European, African and Asian culture.
In terms of meaning, the skull symbolizes death but in a positive manner. In Mexico it is believed that death is not the final stage in one’s life but rather a step forward into a higher level of conscience.
For the Aztecs skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth.
Supposedly the symbolism of a sugar skull is rooted in the decoration around the eyes. Flowers are meant to symbolize life, while cob webs symbolize death. Burning candles set inside the eyes are a sign of remembrance. These items can also be used in combination to personalize the main focus of the skull as well.
So there you have it folks! Now you know where the origin of sugar skulls lies and you understand a little bit more about their meaning.
Now you can enjoy my small collection of exceptional sugar skull tattoos, photography and illustrations 😉